Last week, we interviewed Lord of the Rings Online executive producer Jeffrey Steefel about Book 13, the next major content update for Turbine's splendid Tolkien MMO. Today, in part two of our interview, we shoot the breeze on a broader range of topics: how they're handling the lore, how they can improve the game's lacklustre player-versus-player, what the plans are for other platforms, why EVE Online is great, and who wants to be an Ent, anyway?
Eurogamer: Are your content guys Tolkien Legendarium fanboys, the way LucasArts employs Star Wars obsessives?
Jeffrey Steefel: I don't if it's possible to know everything, but we absolutely do, and probably for the same reasons. You start off with people that have a predilection for the lore to begin with, and make sure you have people on your team that are very well-versed, and then what begins to happen is that everybody on the team becomes very well-versed. I mean, I know things about Tolkien lore that I never even knew existed, having done the project for four years now. I've got a guy on my team who's a published fantasy writer and who studied linguistics and can, I believe, read and write two dialects of Elvish.
Eurogamer: At the current rate you'll finish the books in 2010. What then?
Jeffrey Steefel: Right now we're licensed to 2014 and can extend to 2017. We have the rights to the trilogy and The Hobbit, and that's what basing world around. We're not worried about running out of space and time. If you look at all the places we have to go, and how complex and richly-textured they get the more we go forward, we don't think we're going to run out any time during our license period, and even beyond that there's a breadth that you can start to explore. As long as we keep doing that, the richness will keep us going well past my retirement.
Eurogamer: Would you consider a Dark Age of Camelot-style graphics update in years to come?
Jeffrey Steefel: One of the wonderful things about Turbine, without sounding too Hallmarky, is that we started life as a tech company and at the core of what we do is our engine. It's not that simple, but for an example, we were not building our game as DX10, because when we started making it DX10 didn't exist (one of the joys of MMOs - like building a space shuttle with an 8086 computer). We saw we could be the first MMO to launch with it, so the core technology team built that into our renderer and engine and built it back into core products that we were building.
We are constantly merging tech back and forth in this continuum. We don't need to upgrade the graphics of our game, because we're constantly doing it - updating animations so the way characters move is much smoother, we're doing a complete overhaul of our UI system, which we'll talk about over the coming year, so it's a continuum. What I hope is that we continue to evolve alongside the industry and we continue to be out front.
Eurogamer: Could your tech team move LOTRO across to consoles; it already works with a gamepad, and 360 is dying for want of a decent MMO.
Jeffrey Steefel: The standard answer I give, which is genuine; our license for the Tolkien properties is across all platforms. That's not by accident. How and when is the best time to leverage that capability? We're evolving our engine; part of that is making sure we can distribute content wherever players are, so that's part of our core strategy.
Eurogamer: Microsoft is already talking about a next-gen 360, so maybe we'll see it on that?
Jeffrey Steefel: Which is... stunning. This one'll have a larger hard-drive, a power-supply that doesn't melt... I've been blown away by the Xbox actually, the service they've built around it is really impressive. I'm on my second one and it's having a few problems, but that's the price you pay for wanting to be first to market by a year and a half. It paid off in the beginning, the question is, will it long-term? Anyway, it's good for us all that there's two high-end players in the market.
Eurogamer: Monster play feels like a free-for-all at the moment. Is it designed that way, or just because of the large numbers in battles?
Jeffrey Steefel: Depends on who's fighting. If you've spent lots of time in WOW and elsewhere, these things tend to be chaos; and there are people that really enjoy that. On the other hand, I've seen groups of Freeps and Creeps really organise themselves about how they approach some of the strategy that was already in the Ettenmoors on launch - taking keeps, getting access to certain resources. What we launched was a good start but didn't make for enough of that strategy, so that's the path we've been going down.
In Book 12 we added the Delving of Fror, which is fun to play and hard to say, but it takes things to the next level and says, why do I want to control certain parts of the Ettenmoors? Having control of these areas up here gives access to Delving of Fror, which is basically a whole bunch of really high-end and cool raid content that gives me lots of loot I can't get anywhere else in the game. It's also a really high-end PVP area, so if I lose control up above then the other party can come in and kick my butt from behind. That's an indication of where we're going to take things, and we'll go even further for Moria and beyond.
Eurogamer: Sounds very similar to Planetside's expansion Aftershock, which was the beginning of the end for the game.
Jeffrey Steefel: Well, first, everyone has access to this, as it's not an expansion pack. You can solo some of the content down in Fror, and the fact that there's only five things to take control of in the Ettenmoors means there's a fluidity of access down there, with a constant watching your back. On our test server - I don't want to call it beta as our Book testing is only about ten weeks long - we opened up Fror and we had hundreds down there without any problems. You're right, that's the challenge, as PVP isn't everywhere, and if you're participating in PVP, access to broadest group of people and making sure content is available to as many as possible is important.
Eurogamer: Are you planning to expand PVP as the war expands, across more of the land?
Jeffrey Steefel: I want to be careful not to be too definitive in this answer, but that's definitely, philosophically and from a high-level design perspective, what we talk about all the time - which is, you get across the Misty Mountains and that's where you're really getting to the martial part of Middle Earth, from Helm's Deep to Minas Tirith to the Ents marching on Isengard, war is always there. More will crop up once across the Misties.
Eurogamer: How about Ents as playable characters?
Jeffrey Steefel: As a race? [Laughs.] There's a couple of possible things that could happen with Ents. The vehicles we have in there, that allow you to play as high-end Troll or Ranger for a session - session play is a vehicle available to us if we wanted you to go in and be an Ent, for example. With anything, it would have to be a question of why, what's the right circumstance. Why is it rewarding, how does it fit into the lore.
Eurogamer: Any plans for the Asian market?
Jeffrey Steefel: We have partners in China and Korea - in Korea it's NHN. NHN's site has half of the population of Korea registered for one of their MMOs - 21 million people. It's insane. We'll be launching closed beta over there soon, we're really excited about that. ChinaDotCom will be launching LOTRO later this year, with a similarly huge audience, and different business models. It'll be huge. Customer service, business models and how you monetize the game are all changing over there. The more things we do with monster play, the more exciting for them. They love being the monsters.
Eurogamer: What other MMO do you wish you'd made?
Jeffrey Steefel: I love EVE Online. If I didn't have a life... I've specifically resisted playing it since beta, as it's such a time-consuming experience. I love space, I love the genre, and they've been really successful making that work for a certain part of the market. It's not an easy thing to do, many have tried. It's got just enough metastructure to make it work.
I spent some time at There.com and the learning from that was all about structure- it was too much of a sandbox. Only when we got closer to launch did we realise that you needed some structure, otherwise the emergent gameplay we were all excited about doesn't happen. You get a bunch of frustrated lost people wandering around going, "how cool, I can do anything I want... um..."
Eurogamer: How is LOTRO going to tie in better to the internet, the connected world? Will there be minigames on mobile phones? How can it expand beyond the PC platform?
Jeffrey Steefel: You're going to hear a lot about this in the next 6 to 10 months from Turbine. Even the early stuff like the Lorebook is built around a conversation between the game and the web. We're building out the infrastructure so the data of the game is transparent to any platform, and wherever users are they're going to be getting at it. We've got a team of people working on this specifically, and they talk about turning the game inside out, thinking of the web as a platform extension itself, like you would mobile or console. So the short answer is "yes." There's a lot of opportunity for things like that, but it's dependent on the people who own the platforms and what they're willing to open things up to. That's why the Xbox Live infrastructure is interesting, because they've spent as much time working on that as the hardware.